August 28, 2009According to Stever Robbins, president of a Massachusetts business coaching service, there are seven mistakes managers make when communicating. These mistakes apply to the communications between federal employees and agency retirement specialists as well. Out of frustration, many employees blame their benefits coordinators for failing to provide accurate or important information needed to plan for retirement. In some cases, I've intervened on behalf of employees, only to discover that the primary reason for such misunderstandings is the employee and/or retirement specialist were not communicating properly. Here are the mistakes, according to Robbins, along with my suggestions for avoiding them in the federal employee retirement planning process:
1. Making controversial announcements without doing groundwork first
Any controversial decision can engender rumors, anxiety and resistance. So, rather than announcing a controversial decision to an entire group, prep people one-on-one. Learn who will object, and why.
Over the years there have been proposals, discussion and threats to change the computation of federal retirement benefits, the eligibility requirements and even the amount of required retirement contributions. I've even heard that Congress was scheming to get rid of the remaining federal employees who are covered under the Civil Service Retirement System. These are all rumors with little or no truth. But when word gets passed from employee to employee, it starts to sound like a done deal. Retirement specialists can help by assuring employees that these changes are only rumors and unless they are signed into law, they will have no effect on employee retirement benefits. When teaching a retirement seminar, I probably gain the most credibility by squelching the rumors and stating the facts for my audience.
Some lies or partial truths are well-intentioned. Certain topics must remain confidential while they're under discussion. But be careful how you keep secrets. If people know you've lied, you will lose their trust forever.
I have never seen a retirement specialist intentionally lie. But sometimes in an effort to appear competent, a benefits coordinator will answer an employee's question before doing the proper research. Most of us know it's OK to say, "I don't know, but I'll find out for you." If you feel your question has been answered without proper research or accuracy, feel free to ask for a resource so you can read up on the topic and determine whether your interpretation matches the answer you were given. Don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions or for an example of how a rule will affect your situation.
For instance, when an employee once told me his annual leave check was based on the incorrect salary rate, I provided documentation to help him explain to his payroll office the correct computation and why he felt there was an error. When it was determined the payment was improperly computed, the office corrected it for the employee. But the problem affected everyone who had recently retired. The payroll specialist told the employee the problem would be fixed for those who asked for the correction. Employees who did not find out about the mistake would not receive the proper payment. The agency will remain nameless and the problem eventually was corrected for all the affected employees.
Here's another example of this communication issue: Kristin asks her retirement specialist about getting credit for federal service while in college and she worked during the summers as a seasonal employee for the National Park Service. She wants to know whether the service counts and whether she has to make a service credit payment for this period of time. The correct answer will depend on the following issues:
After gathering all the facts, the retirement specialist will be able to tell Kristin whether the service counts, what she needs to do to fully credit the service, whether she owes a service credit deposit and how much interest is due. It is very easy to make a mistake communicating this information if the retirement specialist doesn't fully understand the importance of the three questions above. The wrong answer could lead the employee to a decision that could cost her credit for the service or additional interest that could have been avoided. If nothing else, the retirement specialist would lose credibility for making an error.
3. Ignoring the realities of power
Surprised that you never hear bad news until it's too late? Don't be. The more power you have, the less you'll hear about problems.
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to meet federal employees at all levels. Those who seem most appreciative of my presentations are often at the highest levels. They seem to be the least informed about their benefits. Maybe it is assumed that since they are in such high positions they already know the benefit information or they don't have time to listen to what is being circulated among the rank and file. This couldn't be further from the truth.
4. Underestimating your audience's intelligence
It's tempting to gloss over issues because "people won't understand."
There are many complicated and technical issues related to the federal retirement process. These can be related to crediting various types of service, computing retirement benefits, and calculating interest and payments due to properly credit a period of service. If the information is presented by someone who fully understands the technical details, it can and should be explained to employees so they have the big picture and can make the decision that is best for them. It is important not to use acronyms and personnel-ese when speaking to employees who do not work in the benefits arena, and to use examples and illustrations when explaining a complicated concept.
In addition, listening to an employee's entire question is not only polite, but also critical. Sometimes it is the last word of the question that changes the meaning. I have a tendency to assume that I know what's coming when someone begins asking a question. It has taken discipline over the years to have the patience to listen for the rest.
5. Confusing process with outcome
Your hard work was process, and you promised them an outcome. You want them to appreciate how hard you tried, but they wanted a specific result.
Picture this: The retirement specialist has promised Craig that he will receive his first retirement check within one month of his retirement date. Then there is a hang-up in payroll that causes the retirement application to be sent to the Office of Personnel Management a week later than expected. When it arrives at OPM there is a question about some of the employee's service, causing further delay. Realizing these problems, the retirement specialist intervenes and provides additional information, avoiding further delay. But the hard work of trying to help move the along case faster goes unappreciated, because the real problem is the first check was promised in one month and it didn't arrive until later.
6. Using inappropriate forms of communication
E-mail is great for conveying information, but don't use it for emotional issues. E-mail messages are too easy to misconstrue. At the same time, phone calls and face-to-face meetings are inefficient ways to disseminate information, but great for discussing nuanced issues. Furthermore, some people are listeners, while others are readers. Don't be afraid to ask people how they prefer to receive information.
All employees need information to help them plan for their future, and it is best if it's provided in a way that is appropriate for each employee. There should be a variety of options available for employees to receive retirement information. They include:
7. Ignoring acts of omission
What you don't say could be sending as loud a message as what you do say. By their very nature, mistakes of omission are hard to uncover.
This is a common problem in communicating retirement information. In an effort to provide a quick response to a complicated question, important details that could help the employee understand the issue more clearly are left out. Here's a classic example:
Debbie calls her retirement specialist and asks when she can use her sick leave to become eligible to retire. Debbie is covered under CSRS and has 29 years of service and a year's worth of sick leave. The answer given by the retirement specialist is no, she can't use her sick leave to become eligible to retire. If she needs 30 years of service to retire, she must work 30 years and then the sick leave will count in the computation of the retirement benefit. All this is correct, no mistake has been made. Debbie goes back to work, resigned to the fact that she will have to work another year to become eligible for retirement.
Here's the omission: The retirement specialist didn't check to see that Debbie will celebrate her 60th birthday next month. At age 60, the service requirement is only 20 years. Debbie will become eligible to retire next month, and with her sick leave, her retirement would be computed on 30 years of service.
Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.
For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Monday mornings at 10 a.m. ET on federalnewsradio.com or on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington metro area.
August 28, 2009